SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) – A prominent Muslim doctor jailed for 18 months while waiting to be tried for violating U.S. sanctions against Iraq says he is eager for his trial next month so he can be vindicated.

“I did nothing illegal,” Rafil Dhafir told The Associated Press in a jailhouse interview. “I don’t believe helping children, helping the needy, helping starving people, is wrong.”

But instead of a saint, the federal government has depicted the 56-year-old oncologist as a criminal, who they say set up an unlicensed charity, illegally solicited contributions and then ignored U.S. sanctions prohibiting aid to Iraq.

Dhafir has not been charged with any terrorism crimes, but prosecutors have made innuendoes that he was possibly linked to terrorist groups.

During a 45-minute interview conducted over a phone as Dhafir sat behind a Plexiglas window at the Onondaga County Correctional Facility, the doctor called those innuendoes “outlandish and outrageous.”

“They drop these hints hoping they can change the minds of the people (public),” said Dhafir.

Dhafir, of Fayetteville, was charged in February 2003 with conspiring to violate a U.S. embargo against Iraq through a Syracuse-based charity called Help the Needy. Dhafir has steadfastly maintained the money was used to help Iraq’s poor and needy. Prosecutors said Help The Needy raised nearly $5 million from 1994 until February 2003, and at least $160,000 wound up in Iraq.

Investigators said Help The Needy sent checks totaling nearly $42,000 to a pair of now-outlawed charities, Global Relief Foundation and the Benevolence International Foundation.

Five people, including Dhafir’s wife, Priscilla, have pleaded guilty in connection with the case. Dhafir said the pleas were coerced.

Meanwhile, federal judges have determined Dhafir would be a flight risk and denied him bail four times. Defense attorney Deveraux Cannick has appealed Dhafir’s detention to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. A hearing is scheduled Wednesday. Dhafir’s trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 27.

Dhafir said the government is selectively prosecuting him because he is Muslim and Iraqi. Prosecutors have denied any racial or ethnic motivations.

The original 14 charges against him consisted of money laundering counts. Since Dhafir’s arrest, authorities also have charged him with defrauding Medicare out of $274,000 through his former Rome oncology practice, and evading $400,000 in federal income tax payments by writing off the illegal charity donations.

Cannick has argued the charges – if true – make the doctor nothing more than a white-collar criminal. In legal papers asking the court to dismiss the charges, Cannick has said other individuals and corporations that sent money to Iraq have faced only civil penalties, not criminal charges.

“Because they couldn’t prove what they originally wanted to prove, now they want people to believe I am a crook, that I manipulated my taxes. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Dhafir, who came to the United States in 1972 to continue his education and became a U.S. citizen in 1979.

“Instead of apologizing, they came up with these charges to save face. I’m glad they at least didn’t accuse me of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby,” he said.

Charity – or zakat – is one of the five pillars of Islam.

So helping others has long been a way of life for Dhafir, a devout Muslim who prays five times daily while in jail. He has provided free housing to needy Muslim families and helped pay for local Muslim children to attend school and go to college. Once, he even donated a favorite horse to the Syracuse Police Department.

Dhafir said he began providing humanitarian aid to his homeland following the Gulf War.

“It was the pictures that affected us the most. The children suffering, starving. It broke our hearts. Iraq is a rich country but they needed everything,” said Dhafir, who had to be coaxed to talk about his other charitable efforts.

Dhafir said his charity operated openly collecting money, promoting itself over the Internet. Although the government has shut down the Web site and frozen Help The Needy’s assets, the charity continues to receive contributions, the doctor said.

“It is a comfort to know that people have not fallen for the government’s propaganda and character assassination,” he said.

Scott Porter, a court-appointed lawyer representing the charity, confirmed the charity is still receiving contributions but declined to provide any figures.

Although he considered Saddam Hussein a tyrant who abused his country and his people, Dhafir said he was opposed to the war and violence. He questioned whether the people of Iraq were any better off with Saddam out of power and the United States in control.

“I am a physician. I believe in helping people. I would be the last person to advocate war and violence. There are other ways to solve problems and disputes,” he said.

In jail, Dhafir spends his time preparing for his case, reading, listening to National Public Radio, practicing his religion and offering advice and counsel to the young offenders he meets.

“My days are full,” he said.

Dhafir said he is coping with his plight as best he can, although he is more concerned about the toll it is taking on his wife, who visits him two or three times a week.

“I have been through a lot in life … but my wife is under tremendous stress. She is managing,” thanks to assistance from family friends and those in the Muslim community, he said.

“I tell her this will all pass and our life will return to normal. But she tells me things will never be back to normal. That breaks my heart,” said Dhafir.

Dhafir’s Homepage:

AP-ES-08-06-04 1201EDT

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